The biggest danger to the interpreting profession.

June 15, 2015 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreters face many challenges every day; some are professional, some are technical, and some are market-related.  Today we are going to talk about this last category, and we will particularly devote some time to what I consider to be one of the greatest dangers to our profession.

Many times, you have read, heard and complained about the huge bad agencies and the backwards government offices you have encountered during your career. We all know they are there and we should be extremely careful when dealing with them so that our best interests as freelance professionals are protected.

There are other entities in our environment that could be more dangerous because they seemed harmless and deal with many interpreters more often than any other client. I am talking about the small interpreting agencies that exist all over the world in huge numbers. I am referring to those agencies that are individually owned and operate in small markets where so many of our colleagues live and work.

We all heard of the big interpreting agencies, but the truth is that most interpreters do not live in New York City, London, or Chicago. They live in smaller cities and communities where the big agencies rarely take over the market; and they don’t do it because, by their standards, there is not enough money to be made. There are no big conferences, there are no international organizations, and there are no Fortune 500 corporate headquarters.  The void left by these big players is occupied by “mom and pop’s agencies” that find these smaller markets attractive, and free of competition against the big language business organizations.

Although there are some honest businesses owned by people who know and care about the profession, many small interpreting agencies are individually or family owned, often times the company owner knows nothing about interpreting or translating, and is monolingual.  These individuals come from other professional backgrounds such as sales, computer design, or public relations, and they just happened to stumble upon our profession due to marriage or a change of residence to a more linguistically diverse community.  Because of their personal characteristics, and often (but not always) because they are native speakers, they can produce an adequate sales pitch for their not very sophisticated market, and the next thing you know, and without any real knowledge of what we do, they start offering interpreting and translation services and booking interpreters for assignments such as administrative law hearings, medical office visits, and “second-tier” conferences in their own region.  So far it sounds bad, but not horrendous. Allow me to continue.

The reason why the get government offices, medical doctors, and small event planners to hire them is twofold: They have enough knowledge of their market to access the places where these clients look for language services (internet search positioning, chambers of commerce, local fairs, etc.) and they offer translators and interpreters for a lower fee.  This is the sale!

Remember, when they first started their business they knew nothing about our profession. By now they have learned one thing, the only one they ever cared to learn: You can get translators from poor countries, and local interpreting talent (mediocre at best) for rock-bottom prices. Because of their “sales skills” they are able to convince their client, who is eager to find the cheapest service provider ever, that their professional services are provided by “adequate”, “qualified” native-speaker interpreters. The bureaucrat, doctor, or businessperson who is hiring the small interpreting agency, does not know anything about interpreting experience, certifications, degrees, licensing, patents, or any other interpreter credentials, and they are so thrilled to get the interpreter so cheap, that they will believe anything this ignorant will tell them.

Of course, due to the rickety pay, the agency owner will have these (mediocre at best) interpreters working under deplorable conditions such as obsolete equipment, bad interpreter location inside the room, no interpreting booth, and no team interpreting.  Sometimes they will brag to their interpreters that they got them a table-top booth to do their job, and every once in a blue moon they will provide a real technician to be by the interpreter’s side throughout the event.

After the interpreting services are rendered, these agencies will take their sweet long time to pay. Many times a “standard” payment policy will be 90 days, and even then, some of these raiders of our profession will tell the interpreter that “their client has not paid them yet” and will use this as an excuse not to pay the interpreter, who erroneously, will feel sorry for the abusive agency owner, and will gladly agree to wait until the agency gets paid. Never mind the house mortgage payment, the kids’ school tuition, and the family medical expenses. The interpreter will now wait for the “poor agency owner” who will console himself in the meantime with a trip to Hawaii, tickets to an expensive sports event, or at least a fancy dinner.

Dear friends, interpreters will take these terrible assignments, wait forever to get a tiny paycheck, and go back to the same abusive agency owner mainly for two reasons: (1) Because the interpreter is so incompetent, that he knows deep inside that no one else will ever hire him to work, and (2) Because they are so afraid of never working again for this same individual.  Not because they are bad interpreters (although each day they will be worse if they stay with the agency and continue to work under those unprofessional conditions) but because they do not know how to get their own clients; because they believe that the clients belong to the abusive small agency owner, and they cannot take them away.

The thing is, dear colleagues, that it is precisely because of the second reason above that these dangerous agencies exist. They are in business because interpreters are too afraid to go directly to the client and explain that the agency is run by a person who knows very little about interpreting, that the service they have been providing through the agency is second-class because they have been asked to work without any technical and human resources, not because they are second-tier professionals. Many times when these interpreters offer their professional services directly to the client, they find out that the agency was keeping more of the paycheck than they thought, and sometimes the government agency, doctor office, and event organizer will realize that they could even save money when they pay the interpreter his full regular fee.

I know that some of you are thinking: (1) What about interpreter services in other languages different from yours? The agency finds and provides all these “exotic” language interpreters on a regular basis. The answer to that is very simple. Although it is not of your concern because you are an interpreter, you can teach the client how to get other language interpreters. If you have been around for some time, chances are that you will be able to provide a name list to the client, and this will satisfy most of his needs. For the others, you can suggest professional associations’ membership directories such as ATA, IAPTI, AIIC, NAJIT, IMIA, etc. and perhaps for those occasions, the client can reach out to one of the big international language agencies. I see no problem because this would help your client without harming anyone. After all, there is nobody in town who could do the job. (2) What about that contract we signed that states that we cannot even look in the direction of the small agency’s client? Many of these agency owners included this provision to discourage interpreters from talking to clients. The best thing to do is to take the contract to an attorney and ask if the provision is enforceable (not legal). If it is not, you know what to do, and if it is, then you just have to wait for the provision to expire, after all none of them is forever.

I know that my colleagues in the big world capitals have little to do with these “family businesses”, but they have appeared here and there from time to time, so please be very careful, avoid them, and remember, in the big city there is always another way to get work.  The solution is, my friends and colleagues, to reject work from these entities, fight over the market so they cannot keep it or take it away from you, and observing the law, act like a business. You have an advantage: you know your profession.  As you can see, in my opinion we have to separate the big multinational language service providers from these “mom and pop’s” agencies. The big ones meet a market need that we cannot meet individually. Although we have to be firm and careful when negotiating with them, we need them for the big events and conferences.  These small ones, these apparently harmless local business are a real danger to the profession. The good news is that in this case you do not need them. You can fulfill the needs of your market.  I now ask you, the interpreters, to please share with the rest of us your opinion about these small and dangerous agencies that are all over the place.  Please do not reply if you are one of the rare exceptions among this business entities. I already mentioned you as some of the few good guys at the top of the post. And please do not bother to comment if you represent one of these agencies and you want to defend what you do. You have your own forums where you “make your case” all the time.

How to study for the federal court interpreter exam.

June 5, 2015 § 14 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This is the time when every two years many court interpreters in the United States, and abroad, are getting ready to take the federal court interpreter certification exam. This test is only offered every two years to those candidates who have previously passed the written portion of the exam.  The test is relevant mainly for two reasons: (1) those who have this certification can work as interpreters in all federal courts in the United States (all fifty states and all territories) where work conditions are usually better and the pay is slightly higher compared to the state-level courts; and (2) For better or worse, this certification is by far the best-known and universally recognized interpreter credential in the United States, even for work that has nothing to do with court proceedings.  In other words, passing the exam improves the credibility of an interpreter and boosts his resume.

This blog is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of the certification being used as a reference for other non-legal interpreting assignments in the United States, it is just a statement of fact that it is a test widely known by agencies, promoters, and direct clients. It is also a fact that, unlike many other certification exams, the passing rate is very low because the test is really difficult.  Add this to the fact that many interpreters in the U.S. do not have an academic background, and the test turns into a useful tool to decide who to hire for a job. Finally, we must keep in mind that the exam only exists for Spanish, Navajo and Haitian-Creole.

My only goal in writing this post is to contribute to the success of those taking the test some six weeks from now.  I am not going to talk about what to study from the academic perspective. I will not discuss terminology either. Those things should be learned in school and attending workshops and seminars to improve the interpreting skills of the candidate, and to learn how to study for the test in order to pass.

Today, I will limit to those things that are important, and a candidate must do when the exam is a few weeks away. In this case: about six weeks from now.

The first thing that a candidate needs is honesty. Be honest about what you know and what you can do as a court interpreter.  This is the time to work on your weaknesses while at the same time taking care of your strengths as an interpreter. Do a self-examination of everything that will be tested and rank your strengths:  At least you need to know where you rank in:

  • Sight translation of a paralegal document from English into the target language;
  • Sight translation of a legal document from the foreign language into English;
  • Consecutive interpreting of a testimony under very strict time limitations;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a monologue;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a dialogue at a relatively fast rate of speech;
  • Legal terminology and procedure; and
  • General vocabulary in both languages.

You can add other categories if you feel they are needed, but you should at least consider the ones mentioned above.  Once you have ranked your skill and knowledge, you have to develop a study plan that will emphasize your weakest points without forgetting about your strengths. Let me explain:

Let’s say that you concluded that simultaneous interpreting is your strongest mode because you practice it daily in your state court or community interpreting assignments. This does not mean that you are going to ignore or neglect simultaneous interpreting for the next six weeks. All it means is that you will dedicate less time to simultaneous than consecutive and sight.  In the same example, you decided that sight translating a legal document from the foreign language into English is your weakest point, but consecutive interpreting, especially under the time constraints of the exam, is something you feel less confident about.  In those circumstances, your study plan for the first two weeks could look similar to this:

  • Sight translation 40% of study time (60 percent of this time for legal documents written in the foreign language)
  • Consecutive interpreting 30% of study time (working on concentration, visualization, memory, and very brief note taking with a rendition starting almost as soon as the speaker stops talking)
  • Simultaneous interpreting 10% (with special attention to expert witness testimony, opening and closing statements)
  • Legal terminology and procedure 10% (making sure to learn the federal jurisdiction terminology and procedure, not the state level vocabulary)
  • General vocabulary 10% (paying attention to “laundry lists”, regional expressions, bad words and slang)

Two weeks later, you self-assess your work and reorganize your study schedule to reflect the newest results. You may decide that you need more time for the consecutive and less for vocabulary and sight translation for example.  From this point on, I would do this self-evaluation every week and adjust my plan accordingly.  It is important to remember that you cannot ignore any of the sections of the test, even if you are very good at consecutive interpreting. It is like playing the piano: you must practice every day to keep your skills sharp.

Because you will be studying a lot, you have to make it fun and interesting. Variety is the key to success and consistency when you study. To increase my vocabulary, I would try to learn 10 new words every day, picking words from the same theme of course; let’s say that today I decided to learn 10 words for items found in a lawyer’s office: desk, chair, file, briefcase, computer, client, pleadings, paralegals, investigators, and telephone. The next day I pick things found in a courtroom, then things in a hospital emergency room, a crime lab, and so on. If I do this every day, by Friday I will have worked with 50 new words; Of course, I will probably remember about 20 of them. That is 20 words I did not know on Monday.

To practice my sight translation from English into the foreign language, I would look for documents that are about the same size as the test to be sight translated during the exam, that are of some quasi-legal content. Letters from your bank, utility company, mortgage creditor and other similar communications usually work pretty well.  For the legal sight translation from the foreign language into English I would look for documents on line or from attorney friends in the country of origin. In the case of Spanish, I know that many of the big law offices in Mexico carry “sample” documents in their websites. You can download and use leases, wills, powers of attorney, court orders and decisions, etc.   Just remember to divide large documents into several exercises so that you are always practicing with a document the size of the one that you will find when you take the test.  Remember to always practice with the same rules as the exam regarding time to review the document and time to provide the rendition. Finally, please record every single exercise you do so you can grade yourself afterwards. You will not be able to see any progress unless you do this.

To practice simultaneous interpreting, I suggest you do two things: First, go to your local federal courthouse and watch a trial or a motions hearing. It does not matter if there is an interpreter or not. You will be interpreting under your breath and you will be taking vocabulary notes for your glossaries.  Please avoid state courts because it is very difficult to hear what is actually happening due to the noise, and also, keep in mind that you need to practice with federal terminology, not state. In fact, if there are staff court interpreters in your courthouse, try to talk to them and see if they can tell you when the trials or long hearings are taking place between now and the test. Who knows? Some of them may be nice enough to let you use a receiver if a court interpreter is working a hearing.  Now, because interpreting under your breath is always carried without any mistakes, you also need to practice yourself. I suggest you access any of the online sources that exist and provide live coverage of trials. Unfortunately, the viewers’ appetite for live court on TV has declined in the United States, so there is no Court TV anymore. Fortunately, you can find hearings on line. A good place to start is http://cvn.com you can also visit: www.nbcnews.com which is showing the Aurora Colorado movie shooting trial live, www.supremecourt.gov/oral has the United States Supreme Court oral arguments for you to listen whenever you are ready to do it. Many state-level Supreme Court websites do the same. I suggest that you record your rendition, and please make sure that your exercises are similar in length to the ones you will have to render when taking the test.

To practice consecutive interpreting, you can use the same resources listed above for the simultaneous exercises, as long as you stop the recording after each question and answer in order to render your interpretation.  Please do no more than 2 repetitions per exercise, and please observe the exam’s time limit at all times. This is crucial for your rendition and note taking practice. Remember, you do not have a lot of time to review your notes and once the time is up, everything you did not get to cover will be considered wrong in the exam.  This is extremely important. Too many people fail because they run out of time taking great notes.  For the consecutive exercises I suggest you draft a family member or a friend who can help you by reading from a text that you can also download from some of the websites above. This will be a great change of pace and will let you concentrate in your rendition as your assistant will be in charge of timing and repetitions.

For legal terminology and procedure, I suggest you focus on federal matters. Remember: This is the federal test. Terms are very important and as you probably know, we are in the middle of a huge change for many Spanish-speaking countries. It is true that many of the terms we have used in the past will now be obsolete and you should learn the new legal terminology developed by these countries’ legislators, scholars, and judges; but for now, for purposes of passing the federal exam, please continue to use the terminology you feel more comfortable with. For the test all terms will be considered correct if they exist in a recognized publication or dictionary.  Obviously, for those terms you do not know yet, I suggest you learn the correct terminology from the start, and if your combination is EN<>ES I suggest the two volumes of Javier Becerra’s dictionary.

To keep your studying fresh and exciting, I suggest you vary the order of the various subject matters: sometimes start with sight, other with simultaneous, etc. Also, I strongly encourage you to have a study-buddy. Someone else who is taking the test and can benefit from the mutual help and encouragement when you are tired, frustrated, or things are just not going as well as planned. With current telecommunications, your study-buddy can be anywhere in the world.  Just remember: You are getting together to study.

Please never study when you are tired, angry or frustrated. You will learn nothing and you will waste your time and energy. Be wise and know when to quit. For that same reason, until the last 2 weeks, have a day off every week, and on that day do not study or even think of the exam. During the last 2 weeks you will need to study every single day. Sorry: No social engagements during those last 14 days.  You will need to end your study at least 24 hours before the test. In other words: please abstain from studying the day before the exam. By now you will know everything you could learn. Let your brain (and body) rest so you can be sharp on the day of the test. If you have to travel to a city to take the exam, try to get there at least one day earlier so you can find the venue ahead of time.

Finally, on the day of the test, wake up early, have a good nutritious breakfast, and do whatever you enjoy doing: listen to music, workout, read a book, watch TV, anything but interpreting. Do not talk to any interpreter friends, especially if they are also taking the test. We know they are showing their support, but this is not the time for you to talk. Get to the test site early, you need to plan for traffic, parking, and public transportation.  Once you arrive at the venue, avoid all others who are taking the test. Do not even acknowledge them. You will have plenty of time to explain why after the exam.  You do not need to think of any term, word, phrase, or anything at this point. Keep your brain rested and stress-free.

During the test, do not start any section of the exam unless you are ready to do it. Adjust the headphones, the volume, and the chair; make sure you have your favorite pens handy, remember to time yourself, especially during the consecutive rendition. Use your time wisely during the two sight translation exercises, make sure you use your repetitions during the consecutive only if you really need them, and please, do not stop any exercise because you will not be able to restart it. Do not stress out if you do not know one word, remember, nobody fails for missing one word, but many people flunk the test for losing concentration and missing many scoring units after losing concentration because of a single word.

Now go out there and start studying very hard. You have been working for this certification for at least one year since you took the written portion of the test. Believe in yourself and do your best to pass the exam.  In the meantime, keeping in mind that we cannot talk about the contents of the exam, I invite other colleagues who have passed the federal court certification test to share their study tips with the rest of us.

Excuse me, interpreting is a professional service. Got it?

March 5, 2015 § 17 Comments

Dear colleagues:

My work takes me to many different places, and my determination to stay on top of everything that happens in the world of interpreting and translating motivates me to read everything I can if it involves our profession. Traveling, talking to friends and colleagues, reading what many of you post on social media, and my own professional experience, keep me aware of some of the most important things that are happening out there; unfortunately, an issue that never seems to go away is the client-interpreter relationship and how so many colleagues give in to the clients’ conditions, even when they are wrong and unfair.

Some of us have spent years fighting for the “professionalization” of our craft; for interpreting services to be recognized for what they are: a professional service provided by a professional: the interpreter. For too long we have rejected all efforts by others to classify us as non-professionals, suggesting that bilingualism and a high school diploma are sufficient credentials to be regarded as a professional interpreter. Every day we are involved in a constant struggle against those who pretend to pay a lower rate and offer substandard working conditions under the rationale that, although a difficult job, interpreting is not a professional activity and should not be compared to the medical or legal practice.

It is a time-consuming, energy-draining effort, but we are winning the battle. The bad news is that we should be way ahead of the place where we find ourselves as a profession right at this moment, but for the interpreters who give in and happily welcome already discredited working conditions and obscenely low fees. This is, my dear colleagues, the biggest obstacle we have to confront all the time. The reality is that some of our very own colleagues have turned into the worst enemies of our profession.

I have heard statements from some colleagues such as: “…(the agency) pays very low rates to the interpreter, but their clients are high-end, so I love working for them…” or this one: “…Yes, they pay a miserable rate, but at least they give me work when I need it…” and how about this: “…yes, they (the agency) pay very little and it always takes a long time to get the check, but (the person who books the assignments) is such a wonderful lady, so I work for them all the time…”

I am sure that you are shocked but not surprised. We have seen this everywhere, again and again.

When I read the statements above, and many other similar remarks, it is clear to me that not all interpreters are the same. I am not talking about good or bad interpreters, I am not referring to rookies or veterans either. I am talking about professional interpreters and their nemesis: the paraprofessional.

Everywhere, and certainly in every field of interpreting (with the exception of military interpreting because of its very specific characteristics as a profession) we find dedicated, devoted, responsible individuals who make a living from interpreting. Sometimes they will have a formal education, some others may have an empirical formation, but they all have this in common: Their income derives from the practice of their profession. Some may decide to look for an employment position in the government, an international organization, or a private company; others may opt for the freedom of action offered by an independent practice as a freelancer. It does not matter, they all approach their job as a profession, provide a professional service, and demand fees and conditions consistent with a professional service.

Then we have a second group: the bilingual individual who knows the basic aspects of the profession, in many cases formally educated and well-traveled, who never really wanted to be an interpreter, but “landed” in the profession. Many of the members of this second group, but not all, approach interpreting as a pastime, oftentimes they are not the main source of income in their household, and the money they make from interpreting is spending money that they use to buy shoes, clothes, or the latest technology gadget. This men and women find in the world of interpreting nothing other than an antidote to their boredom. In many cases becoming an interpreter was suggested to them by somebody else who saw how bored they were. These are the former housewives and househusbands who got tired of watching TV at home and decided to do something with their time. Making money is not one of their priorities, staying busy is their main goal. The interpreters in this group have no intention to study or practice to move up in the profession. They just want to keep a cozy place where to spend their free time. This is the group that I call the paraprofessionals.

But not all of the paraprofessionals fit the description above. There are some who really need to work to support themselves and their families, they found interpreting “by accident” and to them, a low fee for their interpreting services, regardless of how low it is, will always be better than the minimal wage job they were doing before they realized that they could make money from being bilingual. These individuals will never consider themselves professionals and their strategy and approach to all assignments will be that of a laborer. A depressing thought is that even some people with academic credentials will gravitate to this group instead of acting as one of the professionals because of fear. There are afraid of being blacklisted by the draconian entity whom they get most of their work from because they think that working every day, even when you work for breadcrumbs, is better that working less, even when you make more.

It is this group of paraprofessionals who accept rock bottom fees and work under deplorable conditions (solo interpreting, no equipment, no travel time, etc.) that will continue to undermine our accomplishments as a profession. There is no easy solution to the present predicament because the goals of the groups are so far apart. While the professional interpreters want to be treated like the professionals they are, the paraprofessionals are willing to accept any conditions as long as they keep busy; some of them just to have something to do, others because they think they are making good money. All I can suggest, and continue to do myself, is to educate the client about the difference between the services by a professional and the interpreting that a paraprofessional does.

You will never convince all clients, but the good ones, those that you want to keep, will understand sooner or later, and they will bid farewell to the paraprofessional group. We should also try to convince the “hobby-interpreters” that they are hurting the profession and they should act more professionally (good luck with that because there is no incentive for them to reject the sorry conditions they are accepting right now) and will definitely need to spend time with the “accidental-interpreters” and the “fearful-interpreters” until we convince them that it is in their best interest to professionalize their service and appearance. Because there are incentives for this group to change, some of them will eventually cross the lines and enter the world of professionals. The main thing is, for us, the professional interpreters, to never give up or give in. To continue to forge ahead for the recognition of our profession, and for the betterment of the working conditions of all professional interpreters. Remember: There will always be good and bad clients; we just need to look for the good ones and be treated like professionals.

I now invite you to share any ideas or thoughts about other options to end, or at least diminish, this practice of accepting any of these nefarious assignments.

Please let the interpreter do the interpreting!

January 20, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are in award season again!

This is the time of the year when most arts and sports associations honor the best in their profession during the past year. We just recently watched the Golden Globe Awards to the best in the movie and television industry according to the Hollywood foreign press; a few weeks earlier we saw on TV how a young American college football athlete received the Heisman Trophy, and in the days and weeks to come we will witness this year editions of the Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, and many others. It is true that most of these ceremonies are held in the United States, and for that reason, they are primarily in English. For people like me, the American audience, enjoying one of these shows only requires that we turn the TV on and watch the program. This is not the case everywhere in the world. There are many sports and movie fans all over the world who want to be a part of the whole award experience. The broadcasting companies in their respective countries know that; they understand that this is good business for their sponsors back home, so they carry the ceremony, in most cases live, even if it means a broadcast in the middle of the night.

The English speaking audience does not think about all the “little” things that a foreign non-English network has to do in order to provide its audience with the same experience we enjoy in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries where most of the people watching the broadcast will speak the same language that will be primarily spoken during the program: English.

As interpreters, even if we watch from an English speaking country, we know that there is a language/cultural barrier between those participating in the show and the audience watching at home. We know that an awards ceremony like the ones described above, can only be successful worldwide because of the work of the interpreters. We understand that without that magical bridge that interpreters build with their words there cannot be an Oscar Ceremony. Many of us have worked countless events where interpreters have to interpret live from a radio or television studio or booth. Even those colleagues who have never interpreted an award ceremony for a television audience have rendered similar services when interpreting live a televised political debate, or a live press conference that is being broadcasted all over the world. We all know that the interpreter plays an essential role in all of these situations.

Due to the complexity of this type of event, I was very surprised when a few days ago I turned on my TV to watch the ceremony of the Ballon d’Or on American TV. For those of you who are not very familiar with sports, the Ballon d’Or is the highest award that a football player (soccer player for my friends and colleagues in the U.S.) can receive from FIFA (the international organization that regulates football everywhere in the planet)

Because I was at home in Chicago, and because most Americans do not really follow soccer (football for the rest of the world) the only way to catch the ceremony live was on Spanish language TV. Unlike English speakers, Spanish speakers in the United States are as passionate about football as people everywhere else, so games and special events are always broadcasted by one of the Spanish language networks that we have in the U.S.

This time, the broadcast of the ceremony was on the Spanish language channel of Fox Sports, and to my dismay, instead of having interpreters in the studio, like most networks do, the channel used two of their bilingual presenters/commentators to convey what was happening in Switzerland where the ceremony was taking place. Because football is truly an international sport, there were many different languages spoken by the participants in the awards ceremony: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Japanese, German, and others that at this time I cannot recall. The feed of the ceremony had the original audio, but it was at the lowest possible volume. We could see how the original broadcast had interpreters for all those who needed them in the auditorium and for all those who were watching on TV (I suppose) all over the world. Unfortunately, in the United States we did not get the benefit of the professional interpretation; instead, we got one of the sports presenters’ rendition, not terrible, but incomplete, and in the third person, coupled with constant and extremely annoying interruptions by the second presenter (who probably speaks less English than his colleague) with comments and statistics that got on the way of the speeches. In other words, they deprived us of the well-planned and rehearsed event that the rest of the world watched, and instead, we had to settle for (1) incomplete renditions, a total lack of localization and cultural interpreting to put concepts in context (because it is not enough to know the language to convey the message in a proper manner to a specific and culturally diverse audience) and (2) comments and “explanations” totally irrelevant to the events we were watching on the screen. I am sure this sports presenter knows his football, but a lack of understanding of what is being said in that precise moment always renders the most accurate comment annoying when the audience can see that it has nothing to do with the things happening on stage.

Now, I know that the two sports commentators had the best intentions; I even think that it was hard for them to do the broadcast, and I have no doubt they tried their best. The problem is, dear friends and colleagues, that the network, a very wealthy one, either decided to save some money by using their own “talent” instead of retaining the services of two professional interpreters, or they think so little of the message that their audience should be able to understand during an event of this importance, that they see no difference between the job their sports commentators did and the rendition by professional interpreters. I think that in a globalized market where people see and hear what happens everywhere in a matter of seconds, broadcasting corporations need to be more careful and understand that the job of a presenter is very different from the job of the interpreter. Moreover, the audience knows. They can tell the difference between an event with a real professional interpreter who is interpreting a press conference, a political debate, or a boxing match, and these sad situations where the people charged with the responsibility to convey what is being said are not equipped to deliver the results. All we are asking the broadcasters is to let the interpreter do the interpreting. Nothing more.

I invite you to share with the rest of us other situations where you have witnessed a bad rendition on a radio or TV broadcast, and to tell us about the current situation in your local market. We want to underline the mistakes, but we also want to recognize those local companies who are doing the right thing and retaining you to do these live interpreting assignments.

The new world of interpreting: Are some staying behind?

August 26, 2013 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Modernization is part of human nature, it’s always been around. From the cavemen who used the first tools, to the invention of writing, to the discovery of new territories, and to the technological advances of the 21st. century, humankind has always strived to be more comfortable, more competitive, and more modern. Sadly, as modernization is in our DNA, so is the desire to resist change. How many wars, social unrests, and atrocities have been committed on the name of “tradition” and to protect the status quo. Fear is a bad advisor; it never stops progress but it slows it down.  Historically people have opposed change arguing that it will bring upon us calamity and disaster. This has never happened. No doubt the primitive hunter feared agriculture as its results took longer than it took to hunt a prey. Veteran sailors feared navigation far from shore because they could fall into the void. Artisans feared the industrial revolution because there would be no more jobs.  All those fears proved to be unfounded. You see, humans are adaptable by nature. We adapt to the circumstances that surround us and make the most of it; that is how progress happens. That is how we measure it.  The interpreters of the League of Nations panicked with the arrival of simultaneous interpretation during the Nuremberg trials and they fought against it when the newly-created United Nations decided to adopt the new technology to have more efficient real time communication during sessions and negotiations.  I think we are going through a similar period right now.

Those from my generation remember the old TV sets that broadcasted in black and white for a few hours every day, the transatlantic flights on airplanes that had to stop somewhere to refuel between America and Europe. Oh, and we were witnesses and users of then state-of-the-art technology like record players, 8-track players, cassette players, walkmans, and CDs.  We watched movies at the theater, on Betamax and VHS cassettes, and we went to Blockbuster making sure we had rewinded the tape after watching it.   What about computers, calculators, contact lenses, microwave ovens, and many other things. They all came and went. They all fulfilled their purpose and we are now better off without them.

The digital era has brought tremendous changes to the way interpreters do business and work nowadays. We now fill up our work agendas, get paid, and prepare for a job at a speed and with efficiency never imagined.  I am enjoying the ride. Unfortunately, some colleagues are not.

Not long ago I was interpreting for a conference that required many languages so there were many booths. The equipment was state-of-the-art. We had consoles that rewind the presenter’s speech, and we had a TV monitor in the booth that received images from cameras in the room that we could operate with a joy stick to see the faces of those asking questions even though they were facing towards the stage and all we could see from the booth was their backs.  Before the start of the first session of the first day of the conference, I heard the two colleagues from a different booth asking the tech person to “please remove that thing from the booth.”  They argued that “it (took) too much room and (they) really didn’t need all those videogames to do a good job.” I have known these colleagues for a long time and their work is excellent. They are some of the best in their language pair. Unfortunately, after overhearing the comments above, and after going by their booth and seeing that they did not have any computers or tablets, I couldn’t help to compare them to other colleagues with the same language combination that I had recently worked with and were taking advantage of all the technology. I felt frustrated by their decision to get rid of the technology, but I also felt sad because I knew then that unless they change, pretty soon they will not be working. Others with similar skills and better technology will take their place.

For some time I have noticed how the gap is widening between those of us who are embracing technology and those wonderful interpreters who resist and fight the change. I still run into colleagues who give you dirty looks when you arrive to the booth and plug in your I-pad. Just this year I have worked with people who are bringing paper dictionaries to work.  Not long ago an interpreter complained to me that the agency was trying to send us all materials to a dropbox instead of emailing them (never mind we were talking of huge files) Another one remarked that it was “distracting” to see me “playing” with the I-pad in the booth and taking notes on the pad instead of “using paper and pencil.” I tried to explain that I was online researching a term to help her with her rendition but she didn’t give me a chance to explain.

Unfortunately these are not isolated cases, and many of these colleagues are really good.  They don’t understand that comments like: “please call me. I hate to do this by email” hurt them with the client. They do not see that the person from the agency is 20 years old and expects you to use Viber, WhatsApp, and Wikipedia.  I am concerned because we may be on the verge of losing very good professionals because of their stubbornness. And it is not just the interpreters. It is some of our professional organizations as well. I work all over, so I am a member of professional organizations all-over the world. Some of them have embraced technology quite well, but others are resisting the change. We still have professional organizations, and some agencies for that matter, which refuse to take electronic signatures, that want to see a FAXED copy of your ID, or that refuse scanned documents. Organizations that “need” to approve your comments in a professional chat-room; “need” a signature to change your address on the directory, or demand copies of your certificates and diplomas.  We have organizations led by the same people who resist change that are becoming irrelevant before our eyes and don’t see it.

My friends, I worry that good capable people may become obsolete because of their resistance to modernization. I can just imagine how good they would be if they “dared” to use technology. The great Charles F. Kittering once said: “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” He was right. I would love to hear your thoughts on this very delicate but essential issue.

Is someone profiting from your work as an interpreter without paying you?

April 9, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During a recent trip I was having dinner with a friend and colleague when the conversation turned to interpretation in the booth. We talked about the ‘old days’ when the interpreters spent a significant amount of time just talking in the booth because there was nobody to interpret for. I am sure many of you have faced the same situation where you do not see anybody wearing headphones in the audience, you ask over the interpretation equipment if anybody is listening, and you double-check with the technician who tells you that nobody has checked out equipment for that session. For many years that meant that you were going to spend the whole afternoon in the booth without interpreting. It wasn’t so bad. We were getting paid as we sell our time and we showed up ready to work, and we had an opportunity to share glossaries, talk shop, and speak of personal things. This was the reason why many friendships among interpreters developed.

Then, one day as we were going through one of these situations, a representative from the agency or the event organizer showed up at the booth and told us that even though nobody needed our services in the auditorium, they were videotaping and audio recording the conference so we needed to interpret  for the recording. Of course this meant that the ‘socializing in the booth’ was over, but we are professionals so we interpreted. This has been my experience for a few years. There are a considerable number of conferences or presentations where nobody requires of the services of an interpreter and we are interpreting for the CD that later on the organizer will sell to others who did to attend the presentation.  This is big business.

Because I also do voice-overs I immediately thought of what happens on that other job; in many ways it is very similar. Some colleagues who had not worked doing voice-overs or commercials loved the new experience. I continued to provide the service for years… and then it hit me! They were recording my work and selling it to many consumers all over the world. They were making a profit from a product that only existed because I had interpreted the workshop or presentation. Yes, it is true that I got paid for doing my job in the booth during the conference, but so did the organizer who charged to those who attended the conference. This was different. They continued to profit from that workshop or presentation and I did not get any piece of the pie.

When you do a voice-over or dubbing you get paid for your services, and then for a few years you get paid for every time the disc is sold or the video is played. Here we were making zero money! I believe that we as interpreters need to receive royalties (like the ones we get for voice-overs and dubbing) every time the company sells or rents a disc that includes our interpretation. I am now including this provision every time I sign a contract to interpret an event that will be recorded. As always, some clients have reacted favorably, others have not. I would like to hear your opinions, and if possible, please share your experience when you ask for royalties.

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